Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the four Sundays of preparation leading up to Christmas. Advent is a church season, a season not dictated by the weather or the harvest, but by the church calendar. While the rainy season may not be full of rain, the season of Advent is always full or promise. While Christmas is celebrated in the season of winter with cold and snow at home, here Christmas season is hot and humid. But Christmas is above all these seasons; regardless of the weather, people prepare together for the coming of the Christ child.
Advent, from the Latin word “adventus” or “coming”, is the beginning of the church year. While the world waits for January, the church begins to prepare and celebrate a new year now. For the next four weeks we have the opportunity to review our year, our lives of discipleship, our walk with Christ – and to remember God’s promises. We use these four weeks to look forward to Christ’s coming with as much joy as the shepherds who heard choirs of angels and with as much adoration as the wise men who followed the star. And we like, Mary, can treasure all these things in our hearts.
The season of Advent gives the church the chance to begin again. We can shake off our past failures and we get a clean page to write our story from today. During this season we remember to tell and celebrate the birth and life of Jesus Christ.
Written over 2000 years ago these words from Luke, chapter 21, are still relevant to us. The author of Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the sun – distress among nations, roaring seas and crashing waves, people living with fear and anxiety.
Isn’t this what we see and experience? Nations in distress – many of our friends gathered here this morning have left their nation of Zimbabwe because of the distress, a nation scarred by a dictator. Thousands upon thousands killed and dying in Sudan. Drug wars in Latin America. One of the largest immigrant populations the world has ever seen– people on the move from rural areas to cities, looking for work and food. And a fuel shortage here at home.
The distress is taking its toll on our physical world as well. Floods in the Philippines. Drought in the Lower Shire and too much rain hurting harvests in the USA.
And people living in fear? Our communities are filled with women who fear their husbands, people around the world scared of losing their jobs, parents afraid for the future of their children, and adult children afraid for their parents’ health. Whether in Malawi or Mexico or the US, our fears are largely the same – food, shelter, jobs and our health.
And this week, as we prepare for Advent, we remember that 1 December is World AIDS Day. On 1 December we remember, honor and commit to help persons affected by HIV/AIDS. The women of Galilea are doing more than that, but are going to visit and provide assistance to the men and women of Tiwasunge. Here in Malawi nearly 1 million people live with HIV/AIDS, struggling to overcome the condemnation and prejudice, while fighting for their health.
The Gospel of Luke may have been written over 2000 years ago, but the human condition has not changed as much as we would like to think. Nations are still in distress, nature is in turmoil, and people still live in fear. This, all of this, we bring to God. We bring to the church. We bring to our community of faith here. What else marks the distress, confusion and fear of our lives…? You each have your own burdens, pains, griefs and worries.
But Luke does not want us to stay in despair. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.” We should be on our guard for the traps of addiction and depression and worry. In the midst of the distress, confusion and fear it’s tempting to succumb. But we are called to look up, Christ is coming!
Advent is here. Through the quiet passing of the days, as the rains come and go and have come again. As the blossoms bloom on the jacarandas and then fall to carpet the ground, the seasons change. And here we are again at Advent, just four weeks before Christmas.
Advent is a season of promises, a season of hope and joy and peace and faith. It’s the season of waiting and preparing to receive the infant Jesus.
So what does Advent say to this world of chaos? God did not wait until the Roman Empire had become a just and peaceful nation. God did not wait until all the poor had been fed and sick had been healed. God sent Jesus in the midst of distress, confusion, and fear. During a government census, in the chaos of counting the county’s population, in a dirty stable two inexperienced and young parents, suffering from gossip and judgment themselves, God sent Jesus. Into this mess, God sent a savior.
And God does not wait now for President Muthalika to answer all the criticisms or for Obama to pass health care legislation or for Mugabe to rule with dignity. God does not wait to send the Christ Child. God does not wait for the end of drought or the end of the AIDS pandemic. God does not wait for spouses to reconcile or wait for persons to finish their grieving. God does not wait to come among us with peace and love and hope. The infant Jesus is coming, bringing the reign of God, in the midst of our distress, confusion and fear.
Hear Isaiah 40: 1 – 5,
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the
Double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the
way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a
highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be
the uneven ground shall become
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall
and all people shall see it
for the mouth of the Lord has
Comfort, tenderness, forgiveness of sin, glory of the Lord. This describes the season of Advent; these words describe God’s desire for God’s creation. Where paths are made straight, valleys raised up and mountains made low. This geography never meant much to me before coming to Malawi; it was beautiful language and a pretty metaphor. But now to imagine a straight road to Chikwawa, to imagine the valley of Ngabu raised up to feel the rain, to imagine persons who used to walk five hours to reacg the summit of Livingstonia arriving in just minutes. To make a straight path to clean water, a level and smooth path for parents carrying children on their backs to faraway clinics. Isaiah’s vision is now one I can see and touch and understand. Isaiah wasn’t just a prophet and poet, but a servant of God concerned for God’s people and their hardships.
Advent is preparing to meet the Christ Child, to receive an infant born to a teenage girl, a girl who claimed there was no earthly father. Advent is preparing to receive a lowly carpenter’s son as Lord. Preparing to hear a common man read the scriptures and proclaim them fulfilled. Advent is believing that the Kingdom of God is as much a reality as the distress, confusion and fear we live in each day. Advent is a time to remind ourselves and to remind each other that we believe a different world is possible, one of justice and mercy and abundance for all.
Can we see it? This vision of Isaiah? Do we recognize Jesus and his saving grace in the midst of our lives? Do we believe that our faith makes a difference in the midst of distress, confusion and fear? Advent is the time to ask those questions of ourselves in quiet prayer and conversation with God.
This Advent, the weeks leading to Christmas, we may not see choirs of angels fill the sky like the shepherds, or join the wise men following the star, or hear personal prophecies like Simeon and Anna. But we too can prepare to meet Jesus. We can see glory in the faces or our own choirs, we can look for evidence of God’s presence with us as real and bright as the star. We can work for peace and justice, making paths straight and level for those in our communities, easing the burden of those close to us. We can offer charity and hospitality to those most afflicted by hunger, illness or grief. We can seek and celebrate the glory of the Lord that shines all around us. We can proclaim hope to those who despair, comfort to those who fear and peace to those chained by guilt. We can believe that we are children of God, worthy of this precious gift of Jesus. God’s son sent for us, for me, for you… and you… and you…
We can prepare this Advent to meet the infant Jesus, the Christ child.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a season of waiting and preparation. What past failures do you need to let go of? What new story will you begin writing in your life? To whom will tell the good news of Jesus Christ? How will you prepare to meet Jesus? Let us prepare for the coming of Jesus so that we can sing together on Christmas Day!